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Evan Turner’s Playmaking Has Spurred the Trail Blazers This Season

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Giving Turner the reins on the second unit has opened up the passing game.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Evan Turner has been a mystery man for the Portland Trail Blazers since the club signed him to a $70-million deal in the summer of 2016. Sometimes he’s seemed like a great fit, other times a misfit. The large contract has colored perceptions throughout.

One of the most difficult types of player to evaluate is the player who is clearly overpaid but still brings some modicum of value to his team on the court. It’s easy to put a value on a player like Timofey Mozgov, who is currently injured and would be buried on the bench behind Nikola Vucevic and Mo Bamba for the Orlando Magic even if he were fully healthy. The $32.7 million Orlando owes him over the next two years is essentially fully dead from a team-building perspective. Assessing value becomes more difficult when the player involved is still a big part of his team’s rotation, as Evan Turner has shown throughout his tenure in Portland. Turner brings an important skill set to the Trail Blazers – he’s one of the team’s best perimeter defenders, can handle the ball in a pseudo-point guard role, and can create mismatches in the post with his ability to score down low. Of course, the downsides are readily apparent as well – no smart team guards him on the perimeter and for all the playmaking he flashes, he turns the ball over a lot more than one would hope.

Turner’s role in the Portland offense and fit with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum has undergone massive changes throughout his three years with the Trail Blazers. In 2016-17, head coach Terry Stotts and his staff featured Turner heavily in pick-and-roll play – a full 35 percent of his offense came out of pick-and-roll, whether the play ended in his own shot, a foul, a turnover, or a teammate being set up by Turner, according to Synergy. That same number is down to 26 percent this year, but that doesn’t mean that Turner has seen his role as primary playmaker decreased in any way. In fact, he’s been more responsible for running the offense than ever before; his usage is back up near 20 percent and his overall assist rate is more in line with what it was in his final year in Boston than his previous two years in Portland.

A big reason why Turner’s playmaking is back in vogue for the Trail Blazers is that they’ve mostly given up on staggering Lillard and McCollum in an effort to keep one of them on the floor at all times. In the first half of the 2018-19 season, Turner has already played nearly twice as many minutes without Lillard and McCollum as he did in the previous two years combined. Should this trend keep through the second half of the season, Turner will play nearly 700 minutes as the primary playmaker with neither Lillard nor McCollum on the floor with him after playing a grand total of just short of 200 minutes in 2016-17 and 2017-18 combined. And it’s not as though one of Portland’s stars have missed much time to significantly impact their ability to play them with or without Turner.

“But how,” you might ask yourself, “is Turner’s pick-and-roll usage down when he’s spending more time alone as the primary playmaker?” That’s a good question and one that’s not readily answered by looking through Portland’s team-wide data. Turner’s overall assist rate is up, but those assists aren’t necessarily coming from an increased pick-and-roll usage. His passing out of the post is relatively constant as well. They’re not running significantly more off-screen sets than they were in previous years and their spot-up jumpers are an essentially identical percentage of their overall possession as in 2017-18. There’s no indication anywhere in the stats that Turner’s having a specific impact on the Trail Blazers’ playmaking in an individual area, just that his overall playmaking is up significantly.

The answer seems to lie in Turner’s shot selection. In particular, Turner’s passing up more of his low-efficiency three-pointers to drive to the basket and either finish himself or find teammates once he’s down there. Instead of cutting off Portland’s drive-and-kick game with a 30-percent chance at making a three, he’s opting to keep the possession alive in an attempt to create a better shot, whether that be a layup or short jumper, a dump-off to the big man, or another kickout to the perimeter, where players like Nik Stauskas and Seth Curry are waiting to bomb a three-pointer. He’s getting to the rim twice as often as he did last year and is finishing 63 percent of the time, just a hair short of last year’s career-best 64 percent.

Collapsing the defense is its own form of gravity, a term usually reserved for the best shooters in the league and the space they create in the middle of the floor for their teammates. Turner, by driving more often, forces the defense to react to him, at which point he can use his height to find teammates over the top or skill to drop it to Jusuf Nurkic on the opposite block.

Turner is able to turn his biggest weakness into a strength on these plays – teams play so far off him because of his poor shooting that he has a runway to get going toward the rim while his defender is still recovering. In the first clip above, Houston’s P.J. Tucker is at the block to deter McCollum’s drive to the rim (giving Turner the disrespect that, frankly, he deserves). McCollum uses one dribble to back out, Tucker follows him, leaving Turner open for the baseline drive. Nene has to come over to challenge Turner at the rim and Nurkic is wide open for the layup.

However, there are risks to this sort of play. The fewer threes he takes, the more teams are going to help off him and sag toward the paint when he does receive the ball. Additionally, driving into a crowd and trying to find the right pass is often a recipe for disaster. Turner’s turnover rate has skyrocketed this year to more than 17 percent, the worst mark of his career. A higher usage and assist rate should naturally lead to more turnovers for all but the very best playmakers, but Turner’s particular style of playmaking puts him into much more dangerous situations than a lot of players. He’ll often try to squeeze the ball into very tight spaces or get caught in the air in an attempt to kick the ball out to the perimeter:

Turner’s attacking mentality when he catches the ball on the perimeter has been a positive for the Trail Blazers this season. He’s getting into the paint and drawing defenders toward him, something that just doesn’t happen when he’s in the corner. There’s a large enough sample of his three-point shooting over multiple years to indicate that he’s just not ever going to be even a below-average shooter; teams are going to leave him open for the rest of his career. If he’s able to turn those touches into more efficient drives to the basket, then Portland will benefit massively, especially in a playoff series, when defenses are often more liberal with their help toward Lillard and McCollum. His turnover rate jumps off the page and there are some truly horrible ones in his archives – he often tries to throw guys open or throw low-percentage passes that get picked off – but he picks up a lot of turnovers while endeavoring to do the right thing for his skill set. Continuing to attack the basket as much as he has and trying to cut down on the turnovers once he gets there will be a big part of the second half of the season for him and come playoff time, if he’s able to hold down the fort offensively while Lillard and McCollum are sitting out, then that will give the Trail Blazers even more time with both of their superstars on the floor together and at their most dangerous.